Q&A: To give or not to give can be a taxing question

Dear Liz: A good friend who is childless wishes to give his property to my daughter before his death. He has been an informal uncle for the whole 50 years of my daughter’s life, and we are, in effect, his family. However, I am concerned that the gift tax may be more than he bargained for. He is not tax-aware, and earns very little, so his tax knowledge is skimpy. He owns his property outright, however.

I know that someone can give as much as $14,000 without having to file a gift tax return and that there is a “’lifetime exemption” of more than $5 million. If his property is worth, say, $500,000, can he be tax free on a gift of that magnitude by, in effect, using his lifetime exemption?

Answer: Essentially, yes, but he may be creating a tax problem for your daughter.

Gift taxes are not something that most people need to worry about. At most, a gift worth more than $14,000 per recipient would require the giver to file a gift tax return. Gift taxes wouldn’t be owed until the amount given away in excess of that annual exemption limit exceeds the lifetime exemption limit of $5.49 million.

Capital gains taxes are another matter and should always be considered before making gifts. Here’s why.

Your friend has what’s known as a “tax basis” in this property. If he sold it, he typically would owe capital gains taxes on the difference between that basis — usually the purchase price plus the cost of any improvements — and the sale price, minus any selling costs. If he has owned the property a long time and it has appreciated significantly, that could be a big tax bill.

If he gives the property to your daughter while he’s alive, she would receive his tax basis as well. If she inherited the property instead, the tax basis would be updated to the property’s value at the time of your friend’s death. No capital gains taxes would be owed on the appreciation that took place during his lifetime.

There’s something else to consider. If your friend doesn’t make much money, he may not have the savings or insurance he would need to pay for long-term care. The property could be something he could sell or mortgage to cover those costs.

If he gives the property away, he could create problems for himself if he has no other resources. Medicaid is a government program that typically pays such costs for the indigent, but there’s a “look back” period that could delay his eligibility for coverage. The look-back rules impose a penalty for gifts or asset transfers made in the previous five years. He should consult an elder-law attorney before making such a move.

Q&A: Obsessing over taxes is foolish

Dear Liz: Most of your articles are from people who have not yet retired. I am retired and always expected to be making less money now than when I was working. But the opposite has happened. I am making almost twice as much and I have a lot of money in stocks, which have increased dramatically. I want to travel and use that money but anything I sell will be taxed at the 25% rate. Any ideas how to get my money out and be able to use it?

Answer: Sure. Place a sell order, set aside 25% for taxes and enjoy your life while you still have a life to enjoy. If you’d like to reduce your yearly tax bill, consider bumping up your charitable contributions to help those who aren’t so fortunate.

Paying taxes is not fun, but obsessing about ways to avoid them or letting them dictate your decisions is foolish. You’ll still be far better off than you expected to be after you pay Uncle Sam, and you’ll have the cash to do what you want. So do it.

Q&A: Hard to predict tax rates

Dear Liz: I read your column answer to the 40-year-old who asked about regular 401(k) versus Roth 401(k) contributions. Obviously, the answer has more moving parts than you have space for. However, using before-tax dollars for the 401(k) gives him a small break now, but when he hits 70 1/2, those dollars will impact the taxability of his Social Security benefits. He could contribute to the 401(k) with after-tax dollars, get the company match and avoid that impact 30 years in the future, right?

Answer: The “right” answer requires knowing what tax rates will be 30 years in the future, at a time when no one is entirely sure what tax rates will be next year. Which means the smart approach is to hedge one’s bets. Given the original reader’s current financial situation, that translates into focusing most contributions into the pretax 401(k) but also making contributions to the Roth. That will give him some flexibility to control his tax bill in retirement without going “all in” on the bet that his tax rate then will be higher than it is now.

Q&A: Saving for retirement also means planning for the tax hit

Dear Liz: I’m 40. We own our house and have a young daughter. Through my current employer, I’m able to contribute to a regular 401(k) and also a Roth 401(k) retirement account. My company matches 3% if we contribute a total of 6% or more of our salaries. Are there any reasons I should contribute to both my 401(k) and Roth, or should I contribute only to my Roth? My salary and bonus is around $80,000 and I have about $150,000 in my 401(k) and about $30,000 in my Roth. Thanks very much for your time.

Answer: A Roth contribution is essentially a bet that your tax rate in retirement will be the same or higher than it is currently. You’re giving up a tax break now, because Roth contributions aren’t deductible, to get one later, because Roth withdrawals in retirement are tax free.

Most retirees see their tax rates drop in retirement, so they’re better off contributing to a regular 401(k) and getting the tax deduction sooner rather than later. The exceptions tend to be wealthier people and those who are good savers. The latter can find themselves with so much in their retirement accounts that their required minimum distributions — the withdrawals people must take from most retirement accounts after they’re 70½ — push them into higher tax brackets.

That’s why many financial planners suggest their clients put money in different tax “buckets” so they’re better able to control their tax bills in retirement. Those buckets might include regular retirement savings, Roth accounts and perhaps taxable accounts as well. Roths have the added advantage of not having required minimum distributions, so unneeded money can be passed along to your daughter.

Given that you’re slightly behind on retirement savings — Fidelity Investments recommends you have three times your salary saved by age 40 — you might want to put most of your contributions into the regular 401(k) because the tax break will make it easier to save. You can hedge your bets by putting some money into the Roth 401(k), but not the majority of your contributions.

Q&A: Tax implications of parents paying off a child’s loans?

Dear Liz: My wife and I co-signed for student loans for our daughter. My daughter made payments on these loans since she graduated from college four years ago. My wife and I just paid off the loan balance, which was $22,000. Is our payment considered a gift to our daughter?

Answer: Yes, but your gift is within the annual exemption limit, so you won’t have to file a gift tax return. You and your wife can each give your daughter $14,000, or a total $28,000, without having to file a return. Gift taxes aren’t owed until the amounts someone gives away above those annual limits exceeds $5.49 million.

Q&A: How long will a tax lien linger on a credit report?

Dear Liz: You wrote an article about how the credit bureaus are removing civil judgments and tax liens from people’s credit reports. I’ve been denied credit due to a few tax liens. Creditors won’t negotiate, even though the IRS has already deemed me unable to pay due to my disability. (I’m receiving Social Security disability income.) My question now is, how can I be sure it is being removed? Do I need to call the bureaus? Order another credit report?

Answer: Your unpaid tax liens may disappear, or they may not.

Starting in July, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion began removing liens and judgments when those records lack enough personally identifying information to ensure that the negative marks wind up on the right people’s reports. Another new requirement is that the records be properly updated, so that accounts that have been paid or resolved aren’t still showing as unpaid.

The error rate for these records was high, leading to many complaints, disputes and lawsuits. The bureaus expect to purge virtually all civil judgments but only about half of the tax liens.

If your liens aren’t purged and you can’t pay them, you may have to wait a while for them to fall off your credit reports. Paid liens are subject to the seven-year limit on how long most negative items can appear on credit reports. Unpaid liens can technically remain indefinitely, although the bureaus typically remove them after 10 years.

Q&A: Keeping retirement money in various accounts helps with tax bills

Dear Liz: I am having difficulty determining if I should invest money in my 457 deferred compensation account or in a taxable account, as I am in the 15% tax bracket.

Also, does it matter whether I invest in a Roth IRA instead of my traditional IRA? My biggest pot of money is in a taxable account, then my IRA, then a Roth. I am single, no dependents and over 50.

Answer: In retirement, having money in different tax “buckets” can help you better control your tax bill.

Taxable accounts, for example, can allow you to take advantage of low capital gains tax rates plus you can withdraw the money when you want: There are no penalties for withdrawals before age 59½ and no minimum distribution requirements.

Tax-deferred accounts allow you to save on taxes while you’re working but require you to pay income taxes on withdrawals — and those withdrawals typically must start after you turn 70½.

Roth IRAs, meanwhile, don’t have minimum distribution requirements, and any money you pull out is tax free, but contributions aren’t tax deductible.

Because most people drop to a lower tax bracket in retirement, it often makes sense to grab the tax benefit now by taking full advantage of retirement accounts that allow deductible contributions.

That means the 457 (generally offered by governmental and nonprofit entities) and possibly your regular IRA. (Your ability to deduct your IRA contribution depends on your income, since you’re covered by the 457 plan at work.)

If your IRA contribution isn’t deductible, then contribute instead to a Roth. If you still have money to contribute after that, use the taxable account.

If you expect to be in the same or higher tax bracket in retirement, though, consider funding the Roth first. Prioritizing a Roth contribution also can make sense if you have plenty of money in other retirement accounts and simply want a tax-free stash you can use when you want or pass along to heirs.

Q&A: Figuring out capital gains when an inherited house is sold

Dear Liz: I’ve have been following your responses related to the tax exemption on home sales. I understand that up to $250,000 per person of home sale profit is exempt from capital gains taxes and that married couples are entitled to exempt up to $500,000.

My spouse and her two siblings inherited a home from their parents. My father-in-law passed away four years ago, and my mother-in-law died last year. My wife was assigned as executor of their living trust. Who is entitled to take the tax exemption of the proceeds from the sale of the house? My wife? All three siblings? All of the above and their spouses?

Answer: None of the above, but don’t despair because the house will incur little if any capital gains when it’s sold.

We’ll assume your mother-in-law inherited the house outright from her husband, since that’s usually the case. When your mother-in-law died, the house received a “step up” in tax basis to reflect its current market value. If the house was worth $2 million when she died, for example, that’s the new value for tax purposes — even if she and your father-in-law paid only $25,000 decades ago for the house. All the gain that occurred in between their purchase and her death won’t be taxed.

If your wife sells the house for $2.2 million, there potentially would be some taxable capital gain. But the costs of marketing and selling the home would be deducted from its sale price. If those costs are 6% of the sale price — which is a pretty conservative assumption — the taxable gain would be about $68,000. (Six percent of $2.2 million is $132,000. Subtract the $2 million value at death and the $132,000 of sales costs, and you’re left with $68,000.) If your wife as executor sells the house and distributes the proceeds to the beneficiaries, the estate would pay the tax. If siblings inherit the house and then sell it, they would pay any tax.

Every year, millions of dollars of potential capital gain vanish this way as people inherit appreciated property. It’s a huge benefit of the estate tax system that many people don’t understand until they’re the beneficiaries of it.

Q&A: Capital gains

Dear Liz: If and when we sell our house, the capital gain is likely to exceed the $500,000 exemption limit. I am carrying over a loss of about $100,000 from stock sales. Can I use this loss to offset the capital gain from the house?

Answer: Yes. Capital losses can be used to offset capital gains, including those from a home sale.

Q&A: Deducting medical expenses racked up by another person

Dear Liz: I recall reading that an individual could deduct unlimited medical expenses for another person, as long as the provider was paid directly. Looking at IRS Publication 502, it appears that now only a “qualifying relative” (the closest I could get to eligibility) is eligible for a deduction on another person’s return. I’m asking because my sister is helping with my medical expenses, and I had hoped to give her a deduction. Her tax person is insistent that she cannot take a deduction for my expenses. I don’t qualify under the “qualifying relative” clause because she doesn’t provide more than half my support. Have I always misinterpreted this rule, or has the rule changed recently?

Answer: You’re confusing the medical deduction rules with the gift tax exemption.

The gift tax rules require givers to file tax returns for gifts in excess of $14,000 per recipient, unless the giver paid medical or tuition expenses directly to a provider (such as a hospital or college). Paying these expenses isn’t considered a gift, so your sister can pay an unlimited amount of your medical bills without having to file a gift tax return or counting those gifts toward her lifetime exclusion amount, which is currently $5.49 million. Gift taxes aren’t owed until that lifetime exclusion amount is exceeded.

Your sister can deduct medical expenses from her income taxes only when she pays them on behalf of herself, her spouse, her dependents and her “medical dependents.” Claiming someone as a dependent or medical dependent requires that she provide at least half that person’s support. Only the amount of qualifying medical expenses that exceed 10% of her adjusted gross income in 2017 would be deductible.